By Mark Prommel, Partner at PENSA
The following is a version of a talk that Mark Prommel gave in the Fall of 2020 at the International Design Conference:
I am a designer. I am an industrial designer and I love what I do. I’ve been doing this for more than 22 years. I have collaborated with incredibly talented people to design hundreds of products and experiences that I am tremendously proud of, and also sometimes ashamed of.
In the past few years I’ve become more and more focused on some of the common language we take for granted in designing products. Many of the words that we use daily as design teams are at best ambiguous, and at worst, dangerous. There is a great deal of language used daily in the realm of product development that I have found troubling, but I lately have focused more and more on two words in particular: “consumer” and “convenience.” Further, I’ve become more troubled with the connection between these words.
I can remember in design school at Carnegie Mellon (for me this was more than 26 years ago), being introduced to ‘user-centered’ design. This was a compelling rallying cry for me. We design for The User… But, if I’m being honest, throughout the course of my design career, most of my conversations, especially my conversations with clients, have focused on a different person. This person is called “The Consumer.” I have spent countless hours over the years in conversations with many marketing directors, discussing this person: sifting through piles of qualitative and quantitative consumer research… attempts to understand consumer behavior… consumer habits… consumer needs… This is not to say that the user was absent from these conversations and certainly not from our design process. As designers we need to be honest with ourselves that far too often when it comes down to the ‘user’ vs the ‘CONSUMER’, we are more than willing to compromise. So who is this consumer that we have been in service of? The Online Etymology Dictionary defines “consumer” as:
This is an important distinction: A consumer is not simply one who “uses things,” no, that would be a ‘user.’ A ‘consumer is one who “uses things… up.”
As designers, industrial designers and otherwise, we signed up to improve lives. And we often work intimately (internally or as consultants) with companies large and small, who are devoted to the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of their goods to their target market. In the early days of industrial design, day to day life for many people was hard, really hard, and many of the products that people used were terrible, and dangerous. So designers (and engineers, and manufacturers…) stepped in and made many things better. We made them safer, more ergonomic, and easier to use. We made them more pleasurable to see and hold, and we helped brands make lasting connections with people.
Somewhere along the line, as we embraced designing for consumers, we became desensitized to their “consumption”. Throughout most of modern history, consumption was considered to be dangerous. The using up of resources — the word itself has historically been a signal of impending doom. The common term for Tuberculosis, the wasting disease, was… Consumption.
When did we lose the sense of the danger of this word? Over time we stopped giving this word the respect, and caution, that it deserves. And why did we, as designers, become desensitized to this word, losing focus on the other aspects of the world for which we design, and agree to be singularly focused on the consuming behaviours of human beings?
This has to do with the other troubling word: convenience. Ultimately over time we began to transition to what is now too often the sole focus of design. We as a profession, are tasked far too often with making products and experiences more… convenient. To design single-use, single-function products, a disposable life, everything needed in our lives to reduce friction immediately. And, this focus on convenience is based on the knowledge that the ‘consumer’ desires it, and the belief that, above all else, this will allow us to sell more products to them, and further connecting them to brands, and increase consumption.
We are now squarely in the era of what I am calling Convenience-Driven-Consumption, where we look to remove as much friction from every experience as possible, in many cases convenience being the sole driver of creating a new product or experience. Convenience, on its own, is not necessarily bad… But convenience-driven-consumption is something that we need to be much more wary of.
Make no mistake, we are addicted to convenience, and all too often when we do try to tackle our consumption problems, it is very hard for us to do so without prioritizing convenience above all else. There are many examples, but let’s take a common one: paper straws.
Paper straws: They feel awful in the mouth. They get soft and soggy in the cup. Yet, this is now a ubiquitous object in restaurants and cafes worldwide, because on the surface this product is the result of a noble effort to put a dent in the mountains of plastic waste that are generated daily by single-use plastics. The problem is that this solution still prioritizes convenience above all else. The solution is still single-use, still available anywhere I turn, and still focused on enabling the use of single use plastic cups and lids. So what do we get? An awful experience, that is still wasteful, still in fact ENCOURAGING waste… but a little less bad… Maybe?
We cannot address the consumption that is slowly destroying us and our planet without first addressing our obsession with convenience. They are inextricably linked. As designers, there are limits to “Better Material-ing” our way out of this particular problem. And as we’ve seen in the news recently related to the recycling of plastics, or lack thereof, over the last several decades, we likely cannot recycle our way out of this problem either.
So, what’s the alternative? Convenient solutions are not going anywhere, but what if we refocus? What if we prioritize something else: Designing for Inconvenience? Yes! Sort of, but perhaps a better way to say it is: Designing for Richness of Experience. This is a high bar, but it is possible. There are examples.
Cobblestones. Actually what I’m talking about are Belgian Blocks, but many will call these types of roads “cobblestone.” Based on our ever-present need for convenience, how can it be argued that this experience is better? It’s bumpy, it’s a trip hazard, it’s terrible to ride a bike on, terrible to drive on… it takes a couple of weeks of skilled hand work to patch and restore one city block as opposed to mere hours to repave a longer stretch. And yet, there is something viscerally compelling in this ridiculously inconvenient finished product that a paved asphalt road can never achieve. It speaks to the skill and craft of the people who sourced its materials and installed it. There is such beauty in its imperfections. You see them, you feel them beneath your feet, and you feel a connection to the neighborhood that a cobblestone street runs through that you would never feel walking on an asphalt block in that same neighborhood. In addition, this surface works as a natural speed deterrent for vehicles, making urban roads safer for pedestrians, and these roads are far more durable, providing much better drainage than paving with asphalt. Convenient? No. Beneficial to the community? Yes.
I’ll toss in another example here from our archives. Several years back we worked with a start-up to design and engineer their very first product experience from the ground up. From our first conversations, this brand’s vision and its product design fully prioritized richness of experience over all other concerns. Throughout the design and development process the term ‘consumer’ was never used. ONEBLADE was designed as an answer to the world of convenience-based disposable razor cartridges posing under the guise of performance. This is a product that is designed, built, and guaranteed to last for generations, a product that transforms the wasteful experience of multi-material disposable cartridges into single-material recyclable blades, all of this to great acclaim and business success.
As designers and as those who generate new products, services and experiences, we need to shift our perspective. The people for whom we design are much more than the sum of their abilities to use and consume our creations. We should lead with engagement, not convenience. I’m not sure if “engagers” is the replacement term for consumers, but it is a start, and as designers we should be looking to deliver rich, lasting experiences to them, and stop feeding convenience-driven-consumption.
Mark is a partner and the design lead at PENSA, where he works alongside and mentors a diverse group of multi-faceted designers working at the crossroads of design, invention and brand.
Throughout his 20+ years in product design, he has followed his passion for shaping the physical products that enhance everyday life.
Illustrations by Naman Nanda